“Don’t Cause Harm!” Islamic Legal Maxims and COVID-19

A greater harm is removed by a lesser harm [Ad-Dararu l-Ashaddu Yuzalu bi D-Darari l-Akhaff]

Allah mentions in the Qur’an that pork is prohibited but then follows it up by saying, {But whoever is forced [by necessity], neither desiring [it] nor transgressing [its limit], there is no sin upon him.…} (Al-Baqarah 2:173)

In Islam, there is a good reason behind every prohibition or obligation. The prohibition of eating from a pig must be due to some physical and/or spiritual harm that results from its consumption. However, Allah says in the Quran it is permissible to eat it in dire necessity. That establishes the principle of engaging in a lesser harm in order to prevent a greater harm.

The story of Prophet Musa and Al-Khadir  (peace be upon them) demonstrates the same principle in practice.

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When the two board a ship, Al-Khadir secretly damages that ship. Musa cannot understand why he would cause harm to nice and innocent people who did nothing wrong.

{So they set out, until when they had embarked on the ship, he (al-Khadir) tore it open. [Moses] said, “Have you torn it open to drown its people? You have certainly done a grave thing.”} (Al-Kahf 18:71)

At the end of the story, Musa learns that there was a tyrannical king seizing ships from people. Musa realizes that Al-Khadir actually saved the ship by damaging it, since causing this small harm was the only way to avert the greater harm of having the entire ship seized by the tyrant.

This sub-maxim has two other very closely related sub-maxims which almost appear to be restatements of the same principle: “Choose the Lesser of Two Harms” [Yukhtāru Akhaffu Ḍ-Ḍararayn] and “When Two Harms Conflict Restrict the Greater Harm by Doing the Lesser Harm” [Idhā Taʿāraḍat Mafsadatāni Rūʿiya Aʿẓamuhumā Ḍararan b-Irtikābi Akhaffihimā].

Application Examples

These maxims apply in many cases and have helped solve many practical issues throughout history. If someone cannot cover themselves fully for prayer or if they are unable to face the qiblah direction, they will pray as they can. Because not fulfilling the prerequisites for prayer is a lesser harm than skipping the prayer altogether.

Another example would be that if someone is in a house which is on fire and there is no other way to escape, they should jump out the window if there is a chance of survival, even if they end up breaking a leg, since physical injury is a lesser harm than death.

In the Context of COVID-19

Scholars invoke these sub-maxims of taking on the lesser harm in order to prevent greater harm consistently during the Coronavirus pandemic.

When a person dies from COVID-19, many regions in the world are putting restrictions on direct access to the body, since it is suspected that the virus can spread even from a dead body.

This means that the body would not be able to get a proper washing [ghusl] before burial, mainly due to the lack of protective gear available for the people who are washing in many communities. Skipping the required washing [ghusl] for the deceased is indeed a harm, but when it is proven to have a high likelihood of averting a greater harm, it is legitimate based on these sub-maxims.

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